United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

March 7, 2016

Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something…

He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.

Fiction, by its very definition, is essentially geared toward answering the question “what if?” Alternate history particularly delights in positing this conundrum. As soon as I read the blurb for United States of Japan, I knew that I had to read it. I’m willing to admit the giant robot on the cover also helped to sell me on the premise. An alternative version of 1980s America where Japan and Germany defeated the Allies? I’m game, bring it on…

Even though the war is long over, there is still a strong undercurrent of resistance in America. An entire generation may have grown up knowing nothing but the rule of Imperial Japan, but still there are those who continue to fight. There is a continued tension in society and a strange new videogame is causing concerns. The powers on high are anxious that the game is sowing the seeds of discord.

Beniko Ishimura is an interesting construction. At first glance he appears to be a bit of a failure. He has managed to get to his station in life more through luck and connections than any sort of inherent talent. He is often dismissed by others as being a bit of a waste of space. Needless to say, as the narrative unfolds, you get to discover that Ishimura is a bit more complex than that. I do so enjoy a flawed hero, always far more interesting to read. I often enjoy a book far more when a character’s motivations are murky at best. It gives you the opportunity to try and pick them apart, try to figure them out. It is certainly true in this case. Ishimura is a multi-layered fellow. When he is saddled with a member of the Secret Police as a partner, they don’t get off to the best start.

Akiko Tsukino is the polar opposite of Ishimura. She is driven by duty and believes the Emperor is divine in his rule. She sees everything in a very linear fashion. There is only black and white, no shades of grey. Watching the relationship develop between Akiko and Beniko is like watching a constantly evolving battle of wills. The further they delve into the investigation, the more Akiko discovers about the motivations of her seemingly shiftless partner. All this introspection is well worth it. The final revelations are pitched perfectly.

The good news is, action fans, you have also been catered for. As the cover promises, there are some giant robots and also a character who ends up with a bio mechanical gun arm just to keep things freaky. Amputation in the United States of Japan is a properly messy business. If I had any criticism, and it would be a minor one at best, personally I would have enjoyed just a bit more of the fighting. What can I say, I’m a sucker for huge mechas knocking seven shades of tar out of one another. Tieryas does a good job handling the action scenes that are there and more of them would have been the icing on an already delicious cake.

Overall this is a neat little self-contained mystery using an alternate America as its colourful backdrop. I particularly liked how certain things were just ever so slightly different. Just changed enough to raise an eyebrow. I enjoyed the United States of Japan. It pays deferential homage to The Man in the High Castle, but also manages to be entirely its own beast. If anything it is in fact it is perhaps more accessible to a reader than Philip K Dick’s work. If you’re a fan of alternate history and are looking for a novel with a suitably dark and sinister edge, then I would suggest you give this book a try. I reckon you’d get a kick out of it.

United States of Japan is published by Angry Robot Books and is available now.

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